During the 20th century, the NCAA had no playoff for the major college football teams in the University Division, later known as Division I-A. The NCAA did recognize a national champion based upon the final results of "wire service" (AP and UPI) polls. The extent of that recognition came in the form of acknowledgment in the annual 'NCAA Football Guide of the "unofficial" national champions. The AP poll in 1961 consisted of the votes of 45 sportswriters, each of whom would give their opinion of the ten best teams. Under a point system of 10 points for first place, 9 for second, etc., the "overall" ranking was determined. Although the rankings were based on the collective opinion of the representative sportswriters, the teams that remained "unbeaten and untied" were generally ranked higher than those that had not. A defeat, even against a strong opponent, tended to cause a team to drop in the rankings, and a team with two or more defeats was unlikely to remain in the Top 10. The top teams played on New Year's Day in the four major postseason bowl games: the Rose (near Los Angeles at Pasadena), Sugar (New Orleans), Orange (Miami) and Cotton (Dallas).
In the preseason poll released on September 18, Iowa was the #1, and its Big Ten rival Ohio State #2. SEC teams Alabama and LSU were third and fifth, and Texas was fourth. Rounding out the top ten were 6.Michigan State 7.Penn State 8.Kansas 9.Mississippi and 10.Syracuse.
As the regular season progressed, a new poll would be issued on the Monday following the weekend's games. The Big Ten schools would not kick off until September 30. On September 23, #3 Alabama won 32-6 at Georgia and #4 Texas won at California 28-3. In Houston, #5 LSU fell to Rice 16-3. #10 Syracuse, which had beaten Oregon State 19-8 in Portland, rose to fifth. In the poll that followed, Iowa remained #1, followed by 2.Mississippi 3.Ohio State 4.Alabama and 5.Syracuse. Texas dropped to sixth place.
September 30 California played a top-ranked team for the second straight week, losing at #1 Iowa 28-7. #2 Mississippi won 20-6 at Kentucky. Texas Christian University (TCU) tied #3 Ohio State 7-7 at Columbus. In a game at Mobile, #4 Alabama beat Tulane 9-0. #5 Syracuse defeated visiting West Virginia 29-14, but fell out of the poll. #6 Texas, which beat Texas Tech at home, 42-14, returned to the Top Five, along with previously unranked Georgia Tech, which shut out Rice 24-0.
In the poll that followed, Iowa remained #1, followed by 2.Mississippi 3.Georgia Tech 4.Alabama and 5.Texas
October 14#1 Mississippi met the Houston Cougars at Memphis and won 47-7. #2 Iowa beat Indiana 27-8 at home. #3 Alabama beat North Carolina State 26-7 at Birmingham, and #4 Texas played its annual game against Oklahoma at Dallas, winning 28-7. #5 Michigan State won at Michigan, shutting out the Wolverines 28-0. On the next poll, Michigan State took the #1 spot from Ole Miss by a margin of only two points (431 to 429), though the Rebels had more first place votes than the Spartans (21 vs. 16). They were followed by 3.Texas 4.Iowa and 5.Alabama.
On October 21, #1 Michigan State got by Notre Dame 17-7 at home, and #2 Mississippi shut out Tulane in a game at Jackson, 41-0. #3 Texas won at Arkansas, 33-7, #4 Iowa hosted Wisconsin, winning 47-15, and #5 Alabama defeated Tennessee at Birmingham, 34-3. The top three (Michigan State, Ole Miss and Texas) were unchanged, while Alabama and Iowa traded places at 4th and 5th.
October 28 In a week of shutouts, #1 Michigan State beat Indiana 35-0, and #2 Mississippi had an even bigger blowout, 47-0, against Vanderbilt. #3 Texas beat the visiting Rice Owls, 34-7, while #4 Alabama won at Houston over the Cougars, 17-0. #5 Iowa was on the wrong side of scoreless, losing 9-0 at Purdue. The top 4 stayed the same, while #6 Ohio State, which had won at Wisconsin 30-21, took fifth place from Iowa, whom they would play the following Saturday.
November 4#1 Michigan State fell to unranked Minnesota, 13-0. At the same time, #2 Mississippi lost to #6 LSU 10-7 at Baton Rouge. The #3 Texas Longhorns beat the SMU Mustangs at Dallas, 27-0. #4 Alabama shut out Mississippi State 24-0. At Columbus, #5 Ohio State beat #9 Iowa 29-13. Texas, Alabama and Ohio State moved up from 3, 4 and 5 to 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and giant-killers LSU and Minnesota were 4th and 5th. Michigan State and Ole Miss fell to 6 and 7.
November 11#1 Texas beat Baylor, 33-7. #2 Alabama crushed the visiting Richmond Spiders (which would be I-AA later) 66-0 at home. #3 Ohio State won 16-7 at Indiana, #4 LSU won 30-0 at North Carolina, and #5 Minnesota handed formerly first place Iowa its second straight loss, at home, 16-9. #6 Michigan State, too, lost its second straight, falling 7-6 at Purdue. The Top Five remained unchanged.
November 18 Texas Christian University had earlier tied Ohio State 6-6 in Columbus, and bested that with a win over #1 Texas in Austin, 6-0. After the 6-0 loss, legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal uttered his immortal description of TCU:
"They're like a bunch of cockroaches," Royal said. "It's not what they eat and tote off, it's what they fall into and mess up that hurts."
#2 Alabama beat Georgia Tech in Birmingham, 10-0. #3 Ohio State defeated visiting Oregon, 22-12, and #4 LSU hosted Mississippi State and won 14-6 #5 Minnesota defeated #7 Purdue, 10-7, at home. Alabama (9-0-0) rose to #1, with Ohio State (7-0-1) at #2. Minnesota rose to #3, LSU stayed at #4 and Texas (8-1-0) fell from #1 to #5.
Post-Thanksgiving (November 25) #1 Alabama was idle. #2 Ohio State won at Michigan, 50-20. #3 Minnesota narrowly lost to Wisconsin 23-21. #4 LSU crushed visiting Tulane, 62-0, and #5 Texas 25-0 over Texas A & M. Ole Miss, which was idle, returned to the Top Five.
December 2, #1 Alabama won its annual Birmingham game against the Auburn Tigers, 34-0, to close the season with a 10-0-0 record. #5 Mississippi closed its season at 9-1-0 with a 37-7 win against Mississippi State. The AP's final poll was a Top 20 ranking. With 26 of the 48 first place votes the Alabama Crimson Tide was awarded the AP Trophy, ahead of Ohio State (with 20 votes). The point total was even closer, with 16 points separated the Tide from the Buckeyes (452 to 436).
The final poll was: 1.Alabama 2. Ohio State 3. Texas 4.LSU 5.Mississippi 6.Minnesota 7.Colorado 8.Michigan State 9.Arkansas 10.Utah State 11.Missouri 12.Purdue 13.Georgia Tech 14.Syracuse 15.Rutgers 16.UCLA. Arizona, Penn State and Rice were tied for 17th place, followed by 20.Duke. Unbeaten and tied only once, Ohio State University qualified for the Rose Bowl. In a move that stunned the sports world, however, the University's faculty council voted 28-25 on November 28 not to accept the invitation, declaring that the school's emphasis on sports over academics was excessive. The wire service commented that "A team of 57 Ohio State University faculty members handed the second ranked Buckeyes their only defeat of the season.". The University of Minnesota took the Buckeyes' place at Pasadena.
In 1961, both United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP) conducted "small college" polls. The number one selection of both wire services was the Pittsburg State Gorillas, who compiled a regular season record of 9–0 while outscoring opponents 299–25 and registering seven shutouts. The Gorillas would go on to win two NAIA postseason games and finished 11–0 for the season.
United Press International (coaches) final poll
Published on November 22